“Listen, I didn’t mean to bum you out yesterday with my reflections on friendship,” said the skeleton. “I mean, realistically, what are your odds of being caught in a lifeboat with a group of friends? More likely you’d be there with strangers, and we all know all bets are off when it comes to killing and eating strangers.”
You didn’t bum me out, though my one-day editor might wonder what it had to do with your life, why it’s in the Book of Irv.
“Well, it reflects my lifelong feeling about the transience of friendship, and how, in the end, and all along the way, people always do what’s best for them, no matter how much guilt they might deal with after the fact. That’s the essence of being comfortably middle class, Elie, –not that anyone can be truly comfortable in the insecure middle class, mind y0u, the future all riding, literally, on the twitch of a roulette wheel– finding a way to deal with the guilt of not really being in the fight, it’s like survivor guilt. On the one hand, you worked hard, you feel entitled to the comfort you’ve earned. On the other hand, even though you didn’t take your money from anybody’s hand, or food out of anyone’s mouth, there’s a certain terrible sorrow you can’t consider too often involved in living in a world like the one we live in. Your success proves you personally were not doomed, but there are literally billions, all around, who are.
“You read the New York Times every day and once or twice a year they make an appeal to your conscience, show you pictures of wretched, doomed children. You cry and open your checkbook and send some money. It makes you better than most people, and, really, what is anyone supposed to do about institutional poverty going back ten and twenty generations?
The skeleton paused to consider what looked like a couple of vultures, turning lazy arcs in the sky to the north of the cemetery.
“What did your former buddy the judge tell you about contracts? You make a contract with somebody when things are at their best, you are full of hope for the partnership. Then, later, when things turn to shit, you hope the original terms are fair to both of you– or, actually, you hope the terms are construed in your favor and totally fuck the other party. He said it of friendship, right? You give your friend every benefit of the doubt, though over time the doubt may overwhelm and smother the benefit.
“Did you ever foresee a day when someone you shared so many good times with, someone you trusted, confided in, considered a good friend, would become a stranger? I doubt it. It seems unimaginable, doesn’t it, that you would end up with nothing but malice for your old friend Andy. He’s dead to you, as you yourself freely admit. Yet for many years, decades, in fact, such a thought was unthinkable. Now you understand how things worked out with Harold.
“The seeds were there all along, in the crisp light of hindsight. Was Harold a genius, literally? I’d say he was. Was he one of the funniest people I ever knew? At one time. But you see, Elie, as you yourself have learned, someone is only funny as long as they do not appear to be an arrogant sadist. It’s a fine line we walk with other people. That’s the point. It’s like that great line from that Isaac Babel story you love, go get the tattered book off the shelf, it’s worth quoting accurately. I’ll wait.
Babel’s narrator writes: A phrase is born into the world both good and bad at the same time. The secret lies in a slight, an almost invisible twist. The lever should rest in your hand, getting warm, and you can only turn it once, not twice.
“It’s like that with friendship too. If you have to turn the lever a second time, all bets are probably off. And we are born into this world like Babel’s phrases, both good and bad at the same time. In the end, I’m afraid, it’s like your friend’s father always said, ‘you’re born alone, you live alone, you die alone.'”
Those are the words of a pessimist, dad. Pessimism is something to be afraid of, in the end.
“Well, you can get out the rollers and the drop cloths and paint a nice patina of cheerful, hopeful bullshit on everything in your life, believe the best of everybody. Or you can be ready. In a heartbeat, Elie, it all changes”
The two vultures were now perched on the top of my father’s double wide headstone, looking oddly interested in the conversation, turning from my father’s skeleton to me.
Look, obviously I hear what you’re saying.
The vultures kept looking at me, they did not seem satisfied with my response.
“You’re struggling today, I understand. Bringing in prop birds, a sort of macabre Heckle and Jeckle. I get it. This must be hard work, Brownie. All I can say is keep going. You must not rest until my story is told.”
Tell us more about Harold.
“Harold and I met when we were both starting teachers. We taught in a very tough New York City Junior High School in a terrible neighborhood. You know there are more assaults in Junior High than anywhere else. The hormones kicking in makes that age group prone to lashing out. They don’t know what’s happening to them, and they are still really kids, but suddenly the girls have breasts and the guys are starting to grow mustaches. This school was a full-time battleground, the kids were poor, mostly from the projects, and the principal, as you’d expect, was a completely incompetent hectoring bureaucrat.
“I remember meeting Harold in the teacher’s room. You remember the preps, right? You’d get 45 minutes off, it was in the contract, every day you’d get your prep period. You’d never prep anything, you’d spend your whole 45 minutes wondering how you got into this shit hole which seemed to have no bottom and infinite shit flying at you from every direction. So I guess Harold saw the look on my face, and he comes over laughing and we start to talk. He was a life saver.
“I remember I asked him how he coped with the angry, savage, vicious students and he took me aside and told me his secret. In hindsight, it shows what he was like from the beginning, I mean, can anyone condone this kind of behavior? But at the time, I remember feeling admiration for his guts, and finding his hard-boiled way of telling the story very funny, even though there’s nothing at all funny about it now, now that I hate the guy. He was showing me his style, and how little he gave a fuck, and these both struck me as very cool at that time.
“He told me that when it got really bad he’d get very quiet. He’d walk over to the door of the room and pull the little shade down over the window in the door. He’d glance out the window to make sure nobody was outside who was going to be a witness. Then he’d roll up his sleeves, take the kid who was challenging him and beat the shit out of him.”
“Yeah, and the thing was, as you learned with some of those very tough little kids in Harlem, they were too macho to report him in most cases and also, he found, it made them respect him. It actually proved to the kid, in a sick way, that you cared enough about him to deck him.”
Sean Pedroso, I thought, but did not say.
“Look, I realize how little you remember about Harold. I mean, you must have been ten or eleven when he put a price of $75 on our friendship and I told him it was worth much less than that. Tell them the story about that rainy day when he swooped by in that little shitbox he used to drive, the one he rebuilt over and over.”
I was on 190th Street walking toward the turnpike, I was a little ways down the street when the sky opened up and it started to pour. Suddenly a horn honked, the street was still a two way street back then and the car was headed to the turnpike. I looked over to see Harold leaning toward the passenger window, calling for me to hop in.
He gave me a big smile, asked where I was going, and took me there.
“As skinny as you are, I figure you could dash between the raindrops, but why work that hard when we have this motorcar here?” Glancing around the interior of that little car I realized at once why my father called it a shitbox.
The ride lasted maybe two minutes, and I thanked him, probably made my way back through the rain, but I remember that short ride fifty years later. It clearly made a big impression on me, those moments with my father’s friend the genius.
I also remember him calculating a distance once by asking me how far it was to the horizon. There is a specific distance over flat ground. It might be 26 miles. He knew the number and described how to figure out how far this distant point was by estimating its relation to the distance to the horizon. For all I know, it was complete bullshit, but I remember I took it as proof that Harold really was a genius.
“You never heard him quote long passages in German, or speak Italian, or play the oboe? Harold was literally a Renaissance Man, he was a genius many times over. He was also, I came to understand, an insane, petty and merciless prick.”
So I came to understand.
The buzzards gave each other a look, shook their heads, stretched out their great, stinking wings, and took off.
Yeah, I’m out of here too, dad.
“Have a blessed day,” said the skeleton, as arch as he was when he was alive and walking among us.